The Numinous

One of my favorite words is Numinous. Is it strange and child-like to have a favorite word? Then yes, I am strange and child-like.

All the same, I want to show you why this is my favorite word. It involves a story. And the story begins as most stories do — with a book.

The Book

I first encountered the concept of the Numinous when I read Contact by Carl Sagan. That was back in 2001. It was just a few months after I returned to the US after my Peace Corps service in West Africa. And it was just after I got my first job as a “webmaster” doing front-end development, design, and a little something called SEO.

I’m sure that you remember the opening scene from the film version of Contact that came out several years later. If not, give it a another look:

Contact by Carl Sagan

My step-father gave me the book. It was beat-up, wrinkled, dog-eared. He obviously loved it very much. He was a hard-core science/science fiction fanatic; Carl Sagan was one of his favorite authors. My step-father could go on and on for hours about black holes and string theory. At one point, he practiced astrophotography with a home-made kit.

That was when we were younger. But science wasn’t enough for my step-father; he had his own Numinous to seek. And so he gave in to his long-term addiction to prescription drugs less than four years after handing me his copy of Contact.

I haven’t seen him since. But I still have his book, so perhaps I’ll have the opportunity to return it to him someday. Truth be told, I don’t think that sort of luck exists, no matter what you believe in.

Speaking of beliefs: there’s a wonderful exchange of dialogue about them that occurs about mid-way through the novel. And it acts as a turning point in the story arc.

Two of the main characters are engaged in a debate. They speak about the conflicting natures of science and religion. They are also naked. And they’re reading out loud from the Encyclopaedia Britannica. And they have just made love and soon will again.

Now that’s what I call a debate. This is where I learned the word “Numinous”.

The Other

A view of the Numinous. Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video.

A view of the Numinous
Photo by NASA Goddard Photo and Video

“Numinous” refers to the experience of being in the presence of something holy and divine. Sacred. The word expresses a feeling of wonder and awe at that which cannot be wholly understood on its own terms. Which is to say that it is something beyond our experience, something that is Other.

Many liken this Other to God and experiencing the presence of God at work, God taking action in their lives. This is appropriate; the very etymology of the term links it with religious thought. But the point that Sagan makes in Contact is that the feeling is just as valid in the presence of Nature and the Universe as well.

Numinous, as a concept, need not be mutually exclusive. Therein lies its beauty.

The Numinous

I believe in everything; nothing is sacred.
I believe in nothing; everything is sacred.
Tom Robbins, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues

Tom Robbins, one of my favorite authors, once wrote, “I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred.” In typical Robbins style, he followed this grand statement with “Ha Ha Ho Ho Hee Hee”.

Even so, he’s captured my sentiments precisely. Sentiments. There are so many things I love; I’m surrounded by them. But here’s where I also find the Numinous:

  • My wife, Marja. When I wake up with her, I feel hope and awe and energy. I don’t know if she creates these feelings or if they are created by our union. Or by the Other. It doesn’t matter – I can’t help but experience these feelings. The Universe speaks to me through her.
  • Storytelling. Some stories, the best stories, are not about the storyteller. They’re about people and experience and ideas. They are about beliefs. The Numinous. And that’s why we listen. Experiencing the story makes us part of it.
  • Travel. Especially flight. Because as bad as airports and security and lost luggage and screaming kids and waiting on the tarmac is, I’m always excited to leave the Earth. Perhaps that’s just my introversion speaking, perhaps it’s awe in science and technology. Perhaps it’s lust for an adventure with an uncertain ending. There’s just so much of this world to see.
  • Science. And science fiction. I am my step-father’s son.

This is my Numinous. These are my sacraments.

Where do you find the Numinous? If you haven’t yet found it in your life, then how are you searching for it?

And if you’re not out there every single day searching for your Numinous… then why the hell not?

About Jonathon Colman

Jonathon Colman is a UX content strategist at Facebook, keynote speaker, and Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter @jcolman. Feel free to contact him directly.
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21 Responses to The Numinous

  1. Max Minzer says:

    God is my Numinous. It is in Him I find enjoyment, passion & purpose.
    My wife & our boy (family), music & science/reading/trying to understand/philosophy is where I also find it (I’m sure I left something out). Things that stimulate me find it: silence, loneliness, joy & gratefulness, open mind, thinking beyond self.

  2. Anthony Pensabene says:

    i find peace/purpose in creativity, especially using words, being a vessel for my creativity’s messages. it facilitates my ability to connect. to date, it’s the one thing that hasn’t disappointed, and the key to enjoying others and experiences outside of my self.

    thank you for this, Jon. i’ve been trying to slow down a lot lately, especially when it comes to internalizing content. I can’t read/write/do all the things, but I do have control over valuing each experience, comprising quality experiences not a quantity of them.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Anthony. My friend James Callan recently reminded me that doing ALL THE THINGS is secondary to creating ALL THE STRATEGY. It’s a different sort of “doing”, one that I certainly struggle to accomplish. And I think it makes you a different sort of creative vessel. Because it changes your words by providing purpose and direction.

      Would love to hear more about where your vessel is headed, sir. You’re in a boat on a creek that leads to a tributary to a river that lets out into the ocean. Which way are you paddling?

    • >>>”i’ve been trying to slow down a lot lately, especially when it comes to internalizing content. I can’t read/write/do all the things, but I do have control over valuing each experience, comprising quality experiences not a quantity of them.”

      It’s very uplifting to hear this from someone I respect in the industry, Anthony. Somewhere along the way I got this stupid idea that the more content you can comsume as a web worker, the better you are at your job. But I couldn’t help but feel that, after a certain threshold, the speed at which I consume content is inversely related to my happiness and satisfaction.

      • Most companies have the opposite problem – they think that the more content they publish, the better they’re doing!

        I think we’re moving toward a Happiness First manifesto. And I’d happily sign that. 🙂

  3. Trevor Klein says:

    Fantastic post! In my mind, the numinous moments in our lives align with our natural sense of wonder — my absolute favorite thing about human beings. Wonder is what keeps you staring into a fire, sparkling in your eyes and never letting you break free of your trance. It’s what makes your jaw drop when you reach the top of a mountain and begin to absorb the view. It’s what makes kids ask questions. It’s what makes adults ask questions. Why is the sky blue? What are the stars? What does an elephant feel like, and why are its ears so enormous? Wonder is what you feel when you run to the window after the first flash of lightning, your heart racing as you count the seconds before the ensuing clap of thunder. Wonder is why machines fascinate, movies engross and why a good storyteller can hold someone’s attention far longer than just about anything else. You’re one of them, my friend!

    • WOW — that’s it exactly, Trevor! You’ve really caught the essence of what I was going for in this post. Reading your words here, I’m beginning to think the problem isn’t so much that folks aren’t searching for the Numinous in their lives… but rather that they’re so far insulated from it that it becomes too difficult to reach.

      Now I’m off to go find an elephant.

  4. Misty Weaver says:

    Wow, it’s good thing I keep tissues at hand. Life offers these moments of true dichotomy where something this both tragic and wonderful. We sometimes learn to appreciate the sacred inside of each moment, like crying because something is so beautiful.

    I walked out of teaching class yesterday into the dusk, sun setting behind the medieval style university buildings, rain misting around in all directions. I took a deep breath and felt pure joy. That was 5 seconds I didn’t have my head down, shoulders hunched and smartphone in hand. 5 seconds I was really alive after a grueling teaching session that felt like failing, but also felt like flying because I got to at least try and share with people something that I truly love.

    Brilliant piece, Jon, thank you for sharing.

  5. It probably sounds pretty cliche, but man, the times I feel that most strongly is when I’m with my kids. Or in nature. Or with my husband. Preferably all three. I believe in God, and have had many moments of what some might call communion, but I feel numinous most often in the presence of husband, kids and an endless sky or mountains too large to comprehend.

    • Yes – nature and the outdoors!

      I originally had that in my list of bullet points. But I removed it because I decided I’d been spending so much time indoors during grad school that I couldn’t defend the point. Hope to get back outside again this summer after graduation. 🙂

  6. Ben says:

    Love this post 🙂

    Like I mentioned on Facebook, “Where do you find the Numinous?” -> In the moments where I reach a place and feel less like I’m breathing and more like I’m being breathed. But I guess those moments are always there, within reach. And long, quiet drives on road trips, particularly with large open spaces like the southwest, West Texas, Montana, etc.


    • I’m one of those weirdos who hates driving, but LOVES road trips. Ben, you’re making me think that it’s time to pack up Marja and #bestdogever for a ride. Thanks for the inspiration!

  7. Everyone here contributed stories that gave me goosebumps reading.

    Capitalism and the daily tasks that face us don’t incentivize moments like these. I think that’s why so many grow distant from their Numinous. It’s our job to coalesce with the sacred.

    The Numinous is both inside us and external, right? I can think of instances where I witnessed something magical outside of me and where I felt a transformative change within me.

    Although, I guess both happened simultaneously in what seemed like an unassuming moment for me last weekend.

    I had a transformative realization a week ago that released me from 2-3 years of internal struggles. I knew it was major because I could physically feel a change afterward – my scalp tingled for about 4 hours after the realization as if I was experiencing ASMR, only much more intense. I also felt lighter for the entire proceeding weekend.

    I was sitting at a casual brunch on that cold and overcast Sunday morning. Idly staring outside, for the first time in three years, a bit of magic happened: I could see nature. I could really see it. Despite a hidden sun, they were so intense – the greens of the pine and the puffy gray shadows of the clouds. I was inside and I was outside simultaneously. It was just me, my husband, and that scenery, just as if I was a kid again without my mind weighed down by adult concerns.

    I finally found again what I had thought was lost to younger years. I held back my tears so I couldn’t make a scene for the neighboring couples packed into the tables on either side of us. But Kevin could see something magical happening and said, “It’s as if you graduated.”

    • This isn’t a comment; it’s a blog post. I want to read this on your site, Lauren. 🙂

      “Graduated.” I like that. I also like the idea that nature and the outdoors can be a transformational experience, even when it’s something you interact with that’s framed by another experience. A meta-experience! But it’s so powerful that the level of abstraction and removal doesn’t diminish what you feel. Awesome.

      Also: I didn’t know that ASMR was a Thing! I’ve felt that during times of great stress, great relief, just… great anything. But I didn’t know it was something other people felt, too. Now I’m thinking that it’s a biological response to the feeling of Numinous. Wow, I gotta spend more time researching this!

  8. Sara says:

    Jonathon, I’m late to the party, but loved this post and the comment thread it spawned. Thank you for sharing.

    My grandfather on my dad’s side was a Chemistry professor at the UW, and his loves were crystallography, bucky balls, my Grandmother and my dad and his brothers. When we were little, my sister and I learned the periodic table through osmosis, thanks to placemats with the periodic table printed on them. I didn’t know until many years after I took up climbing that my biological grandfather on my mom’s side was a mountaineer and had climbed Mount Rainier more than once, the last time (if my terrible memory is trustworthy) for his 50th birthday. I’m reminded often that I come from somewhere, and I’m all new, all at the same time. That, plus love, and family, communion with friends, work that fills my tank more than it depletes it, and a puppy asleep on the sofa next to me who’s wiggling her whiskers in her sleep, her ears straight up alert, listening intently to hear dreams… this is living well.

    PS – sign me up for the Happiness First Manifesto.

    Hugs to you and Marja and Prim, glad to hear that all is well!

  9. Brahmadas says:

    Hi Mr. Colman
    I read you two posts, I was navigated from Mackenzie’ s article published in SEOmoz. I read your post about why our content sucks. The slide embedded was too good. I have recoded a good picture on my future content strategy.

    Your recent post about Numinous is also good. Hope you are good writer.
    Your name Jonathan is same of another great writer called Jonathan Swift, I am not an authorized person to certify a writer. I am just mentioning Swift here as I have studied his work Gulliver’s Travels in my school class.
    Thanks and Regards for your blog. Let me go through some of your posts in SEOmoz too.
    Have a great time

    • Hey Brahmadas, thanks for your comments here and on my SEOmoz post. And that’s quite a comparison – I thank you for it, but I have not earned such praise. Even so, I hope that my presentations and other content strategy resources are helpful for your work. Cheers!

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